Book Review: Real Utopia

Chris Spannos, Ed. Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2008.

I’ve thought for a long time that our society needs to consider (and implement) alternatives to some of the harsh realities of capitalism. I’ve been a fan for a while of the Work Less Party, which suggests that our current economic obsession with creating more stuff has led or is leading to ecological, social and personal disaster. Their solution is to shrink the economy and redistribute work so that everybody engages in both menial and meaningful activities, leading to a less stressful, more environmentally sound world, emphasizing greater equity, power and meaningful existence for all citizens. These ideas are explored in Conrad Schmidt’s Workers of the World, Relax: The Simple Economics of Less Work (which I have read), and Efficiency Shifting: A Solution for the Ecology and the Economy (which I have not read).

Real Utopia is a similar book, from an academic rather than populist perspective. I’ve read a few chapters, and find the ideas tantalizing, even through they’re not fleshed out enough. The reason Spannos gives for producing this book of essays is that he “wanted it to be useful in… that it should serve a practical purpose: the need for vision and strategy,” for the movement the book describes, which advocates for a “classless and participatory society” (6-7). Real Utopia, according to Spannos, argues for an “emancipatory world [that] would eliminate the totality of oppressions that afflict us today…” (7-8).

The first chapter in the book is an interview Spannos conducted with Michael Albert, an advocate for parecon, which is an abbreviation for “participatory economics.” According to Albert, “the central features of the model called parecon are workers’ and consumers’ self-managed councils, balanced job complexes, remuneration for duration, intensity and onerousness of socially valued labor, and participatory planning” (15). According to my reading of this, the economic argument here is the kind of system that the Schmidt proposed in Workers of the World, Relax. In the next chapter, Stephen Shalom describes how the democratic aspects of this plan might work, rejecting Leninism, representative democracy, direct (referendum) democracy and autonomous communities; instead, he proposes a series of “nested councils,” in which decisions are made by groups of people most affected by decisions at the smallest scale possible by consensus and majority rule. This suggestion allows for as much “self-management” as possible, while still allowing cooperation on larger scales. His suggestion that we protect minority rights via a jury system, rather than a judicial system separate from the councils, seemed to be the biggest flaw with this argument.

Because of my interest in cities, I read Tom Wetzel’s chapter, “From Self-Managed Movements to Self-Managed Cities,” which proposed a system of “Community land trusts” aimed at “decommodifying land and buildings,” by “[holding] land in a community in perpetuity, taking it off the speculative market.” As a future home owner, I’m not sure how I would feel about how he describes how the program would work:

“[In a land trust,] dwellings are typically sold to residents in some form of limited equity ownership. Long-run affordability of the housing is enforced by a ground lease. A departing household must sell their house or apartment back to the community land trust at a restricted price to keep housing prices low… Self-managment is implemented along two dimensions: residents have control over the buildings they live in, but the community is empowered to control housing prices and land use.”

Because houses tend to be the largest investments of most households, this plan would have to be implemented across all buildings and lands at the same time to maintain fairness and long term mobility for households; otherwise, general housing prices would rise, while the amount invested by the land trust households would stagnate. This might also imply that everything should be decommodified to prevent such inflationary pressures on households, but Wetzel seems to be proposing small scale, local, self-managing land trusts to test out this idea. It’s not clear how he gets from that to general land trusts owning all buildings and lands in larger geoeconomic places.

These are interesting ideas, but I need to consider them in greater depth and would like to see them fleshed out more.

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One Response to Book Review: Real Utopia

  1. Pingback: Remaking the Economy – Public Lecture on Cooperatives « Vincent's Victoria

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